Electricity For the Masses: Energy Justice for Stalin and Roosevelt

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the United States embarked on a series of massive construction projects intended to put millions of unemployed people back to work. This was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” with the American people. One of those projects, the construction of hydroelectric power stations and other water works through the Tennessee Valley Authority, the TVA, was intended literally and figuratively to illuminate the hollows of Appalachia, to bring copious amounts of cheap electricity to the country’s poorest residents. The TVAs chairman, David Lilienthal, later referred to the TVA as “democracy on the march.” Of course, at the same time, Stalin had set in motion the rapid industrialization of the USSR through the five-year plans, one component of which involved a many-fold increase in production of electricity, also to serve the toiling masses, in part through the completion of Lenin’s GOELRO (1920), itself a prototype for the five-year plans, and also a physical manifestation of the slogan, “Communism equals Soviet Power Plus the Electrification of the Entire Country.” In spoken and unspoken competition with the other, both nations had determined to modernize, overcome poverty, and put people to work in the name of “democracy” – all through high tension power lines that brought electricity to the citizenry. This paper will examine, in comparative perspective, how in the 1930s the USSR and the US attempted to overcome social and political problems of inequality, create employment opportunities, and foment a kind of cultural revolution, using electricity as the tool.